The Meaning of Religious Freedom

On Friday night Jews will gather in homes around the world for our annual Pesach Seder, a joyful telling of our people’s story of the quest for religious freedom. Using symbols and eating special foods, we will tell of our history of slavery and degradation, how we were redeemed from bondage by God and were summoned to be a holy nation tasked with embracing an ethical and moral way of life. We will tell of our rejection of intolerance and oppression, of the need for outrage about suffering imposed by the strong on the weak and that it is not right for one human being to impose his values and way of life on another. We will read about the Jewish people’s long standing mandate to honor and take care of the stranger in our midst, the commandment most often mentioned in the Torah. On Passover night, we will talk about religious freedom, what it means and why it is a sacred and cherished gift.

Religious freedom has been in the news these past days as Indiana’s State Legislature has passed a bill—the “Religious Freedom Bill”—and Governor Mike Pence has struggled to justify what appears to be a pathway to legalized discrimination based on a person’s sexual preference or religious beliefs. The very idea that a person could possibly be denied service in this country based on their way of life is nothing less than shocking. In a nation that still bears the scars of ugly racism and struggles to heal the wounds inflicted by racial intolerance, in this 50th year since the March on Selma, it is simply unacceptable for any one of the states of this great country to create a legal pathway for someone to deny service to another person because they don’t approve of their way of life or their beliefs. Such legislation does not uphold religious freedom, it impedes it.

From the Jewish perspective, the real meaning of religious freedom is the opportunity to be devoted to a special purpose and to use our days to make the world a better place. Once freed from Egyptian slavery, the Jewish people went directly to meet God at Mt. Sinai and there willingly entered into a covenant. That covenant spelled out a special way of life we were to follow, a way of life that would enrich our lives with meaning and inspire us to make the world a better place. For the Jewish people, religious freedom does not imply the absence of obligation or commitment, and it certainly doesn’t imply that we are entitled to discriminate against others because we don’t like the choices they’ve made. Rather, for us religious freedom means that we have an opportunity to do something good as individuals and as a community. We engage in prayer, study, ritual practice and celebration for many reasons, but chief among them is that these acts should inspire us to perform acts of loving kindness and to improve the world.

Tomorrow night we will speak of our journey from slavery to freedom, from degradation to redemption. Our story is not one of self-pity, nor is it one written out of anger or self-righteousness. It is an inspirational story, a summons to heal the world and uphold the inherent dignity of all human beings precisely because we know what it feels like to be the victims of discrimination and oppression. It is a calling to use our religious teaching and values as a catalyst for good. Unlike what’s going on in Indiana, that is the real meaning of religious freedom.

I wish you a fulfilling and joyous celebration of Pesach. I hope that the words of the Haggadah will inspire you and that you will be in the company of family members and cherished friends. I hope that you will create new memories that will last for generations. And I hope that you will spend part of Pesach with the Oheb Shalom family (services for the first two days of Passover, Saturday and Sunday, begin at 9:30 AM).

Boil or Broil: A Choice Affecting the Jewish Future

You wouldn’t think that the way you prepare dinner could affect the future of the Jewish people, but it just might.  It could affect the vitality of the State of Israel and that of the Jews of America.  The way dinner is cooked has everything to do with the way we align our priorities and express our values.  Since this seems like an outlandish idea, an explanation is in order.

I’m not referring, of course, to any routine dinner we might cook and serve but to a special dinner—the Passover meal eaten at the Seder. The Torah tells us, in Exodus chapter 12, that the Passover offering was to be roasted over fire (broiled), and specifically says that it should not be boiled. I’ve read that passage countless times and never paid very much attention to the statement that the lamb had to be roasted and not boiled.  But this year I happened upon an intriguing commentary on the passage that quoted the “Maharal of Prague” (Judah Lowe ben Betzalel, 1525-1609).  The “Maharal” explained that the process of boiling involves absorption of elements surrounding the meat, and that the meat is fundamentally changed by being boiling.  Roasting, or broiling, has the opposite effect, as broiling results in the meat being sealed off and preventing the elements around it from being absorbed.  In explaining why the Torah states that the Passover sacrifice offered by the Israelites had to be roasted (broiled) and not boiled, he said that the young nation at first had to develop a strong identity, which would initially require that it resist being shaped by the cultural and religious influences surrounding it.  When that strong national identity was in place, providing a foundation for the people to develop their cultural and religious norms independently, then they could “boil,” or afford to absorb and be influenced by the trends and ideas around them.

I thought of this Torah verse and the commentary of the Maharal this past week during the second session of a wonderful class being taught at Oheb Shalom by Rabbi Jan Uhrbach.  Rabbi Uhrbach was teaching about the Jewish views of particularism vs. universalism, or, more simply, the question of whether Jews ought to be concerned exclusively about the needs of Jews or, more broadly, about the world.  We live in an age of universalism, so the question might seem odd and its answer obvious.  But the future of Judaism actually may depend on how it’s answered.  Rabbi Uhrbach gracefully led the group through a series of texts that led to a conclusion: we must begin with concern and care for our own people, and then build outward to have concern for the people of the world.  One reason, she argued, is simplest of all: if we don’t take care of ourselves, who will?  But another reason would be that it’s impossible to develop a sense of compassion by aiming to take care of everyone in the world.  Rather, we should begin by caring for those closest to us, those with whom we share a common story, a common set of values, and a destiny.  But we can’t be satisfied by caring only for our own.  We must move beyond self-interest to concern for all people.

The way we approach the tension between a Particularistic approach and a Universalistic one has broad implications for the future of our people.  What will happen to the State of Israel, and to the institutions and organizations of the Jewish community in America and around the world, if Jews don’t take responsibility for one another?  This is one of the biggest challenge facing our generation, and concern for how it will be addressed can be seen when observing how young teenagers relate to it.  In the past, when I’ve asked Bar/Bat Mitzvah students if they prioritize giving money to Israel and Jews around the world over other non-Jewish causes, the answer has been a resounding “no” (keep in mind that the question posed is about prioritizing Jewish giving, not giving exclusively to Jewish causes).  Ask yourself if you are worried about the future of the Jewish people if young Jews no longer feel that it is a priority to care for their fellow Jews.

We need to develop a strong sense of concern about ourselves, and invest in our own future.  Only then will we be strong enough and confident enough in our values to reach out to others.  First we need to broil our dinner, and only then can we afford to boil it. 

Note:  Rabbi Uhrbach’s third- and final- session, on the theme of Jewish law vs. conscience, will take place this Sunday, May 18 from 9:30-11:00 AM.